Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Nonsense

Film: Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates)
Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

I try very hard to maintain an open mind when I watch films with which I am unfamiliar. This is particularly true if the film comes from another culture, and even moreso when it comes from a culture with which I have little experience and knowledge. But try as I might, there are times when I seriously get the impression that the filmmaker and critics are having a laugh at my expense. Sayat Nova (The Color of Pomegranates) is such a film. It is highly acclaimed by film critics and considered the masterpiece of Sergei Parajanov, and it is without a doubt one of the most incomprehensible 90 minutes I have spent in my lifetime.

I mean this in all seriousness. I am unable to say whether or not this is a great film or some sort of gigantic prank played by the film snob community, because I have not a single clue as to what much of anything in this film means. Quite a bit of it reminds me of some of the classic old Monty Python skits like Confuse-a-Cat, or Pasolini’s The Third Test Match, or perhaps the Find the Fish film from the middle of The Meaning of Life.

Evidently, this film is a sort of depiction of the life of the Armenian poet and troubadour Sayat Nova. Rather than taking a literal interpretation of depicting his life, however, filmmaker Sergei Parajanov elects to attempt to recreate Nova’s inner life through images and selected pieces of the man’s poetry. All I can say is that if this is truly what the man’s inner life looked like, he was either constantly drugged, or one crazy mo-fo.

Sayat Nova doesn’t even try to be comprehensible. We see, for instance, a foot crushing some grapes. Then we see a fish between two pieces of driftwood. Then the fish turns into three fish, one flopping around. People stand as in tableaux, staring at the camera. A man lying on his back turns his head and faces the camera. Then the same thing happens again. A man stands in the middle of a church digging a hole with a shovel. He is suddenly surrounded by sheep. There are weird jump cuts and weirder dancing. Women come out in a line and flop tapestries on the ground. Then, a nun is hoisted up and down in the air on a rope while more tapestries are held behind her. A cherub in a picture frame rotates around while the picture frame swings back and forth.

I’ve said this about surrealist film in the past, and it’s just as true of art film—I have no idea how to take this seriously. It’s so completely out of nowhere, that my immediate reaction to it is to treat it very much like an extended Python skit and start laughing it just how ridiculous it really is. Undoubtedly someone finds this all very meaningful and powerful, but I can’t bring myself to think anything but how incredibly random it all is. How do I take this seriously?

I think the only way I might be able to get something out of this is with a massive amount of illicit chemicals, which is simply not in my nature. I didn’t even have a drink while watching this, although there were many times throughout when I thought about it. I don’t think alcohol would have helped me make sense of the film, but it at least would have made the pain of it, the utter nonsense of it, and the boredom caused by being constantly confused caused by it a little more palatable.

I can be happy that this is in the rearview mirror, but I’ll never get this time back, and I hold Sayat Nova personally responsible for my missing 88 minutes of my regularly scheduled life.

*** EDIT ***

So I've slept on it, and come to a realization. I have a hypothesis of how a film like this comes to be seen as a masterpiece of the style when it's really a weirdness souffle with psycho-cream on top. My thinking is that someone--a critic, a college film professor--tripping balls and out of his mind saw this and declared it the greatest thing he'd ever seen. Then strictly for fear of being seen as stupid everyone else followed suit rather than admit that this film makes less sense than a suit coat made of tortilla chips. So to hell with it; I'm saying it: this film makes no sense, and it's not worth the time to watch.

Why to watch Sayat Nova: It's incomprehensibly striking.
Why not to watch: It's strikingly incomprehensible.

6 comments:

  1. I agree with you that this one is a tough call. It really took me awhile to understand it even a little bit. I'm willing to give it a thumbs up for the striking images, but I'm not sold on it enough to say I disagree with you too much. The other 1001 choice from Parajanov, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors I liked a little better but I'll be damned if I can remember why. I do think the thing I like most about going through the films on this list is seeing different types and styles of film I would have never ventured to otherwise.

    Chris, a librarian

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  2. I've liked pursuing the list for exactly the same reason. For me, the pain of a film like this one is greatly mitigated by the fact that I've seen and really enjoyed dozens of films I'd have never bothered with otherwise, and the films I've liked have far outweighed the films I haven't.

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  3. This sounds ... incomprehensibly striking.

    Nice article.

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  4. It's possible that this film actually means something, but I don't know what it is.

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  5. You'd do well to research the life of Sayat-Nova as well as the director, Padjaranov. The film is not intended to be a comprehensible narrative so much as a sequence of dreams, images, and mythology that carries the semblance of a narrative. The images and symbology are distinctly Armenian so it helps to know something of the history of the Armenian people as well. Admitting ignorance of something and then continuing to criticize it based on that ignorance seems a pointless endeavor to me. Perhaps the time you wasted writing this would have been better served via a quick perusal of the internet which has a wealth of knowledge available on all of the subjects I've just mentioned. If Art for you needs to be comprehensible and linear and literal, perhaps you should stick to more "palatable" films like those of Steven Spielberg. Art is not about literal black-and-white linguistic meaning. There is no decoder ring for a great work of Art. Its greatness lies in its ambiguity and interpretation.

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  6. I had a response here that I just deleted. I have nothing to prove here. I'll limit myself to two comments:

    1) The fact that you've commented anonymously invalidates any worthwhile criticism.

    2) You'd also be taken more seriously if you'd gotten the director's name right. It's "Parajanov," not "Padjaranov."

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